Gene Winfield In Japan: Wheels Unlimited

Words: Craig Metros Photography: Luke Ray

As we pulled up to a compact wheel shop located on the outskirts of Nagoya, I assumed our day would be winding down soon according to our schedule. I assumed wrong. Once inside, we were introduced to Kyohei and Yoshi Sakuragi. They are the two brothers who own and run the Wheels Unlimited shop.

Wheels Unlimited specialises in hard to find vintage wheels. They also carry the latest offerings from brands such as Halibrand, Ansen, American Racing, and Cragar. The shop consisted of two spaces. The front space was the wheel showroom. The space behind the showroom was a garage area with more wheels on display and two custom pickups.  As I walked through the front showroom admiring the wheels, Yoshi-san offered us frozen chocolate paddle pops. It was an ‘American Graffiti’ moment.

We wanted to know more about the Sakuragi brothers and their wheel business, so I asked some questions...

How did you get started in the aftermarket wheel business?

We've been on trips to the US every year since the late ‘80s. We go when we need the parts for the cars that we build, including the wheels and tyres.

For how long have you been in business?

Twenty years.

Do you supply wheels to customers outside of Japan?

We ship worldwide.

I’m sure you are familiar with the quote, “wheels can make or break a vehicle.” Though wheels are a subjective element, will you provide advice if you think the client’s wheel choice is all wrong for their particular car or truck?

Sure, we do try to advise if we feel that the customer's wheel choice will be wrong for the car.

In the shop, I was admiring your vintage aftermarket wheel collection. Are the wheels in your collection for sale? Tell us about some of your favourites and the most rare.

Thank you. They are mostly for sale, except for a few collections. I like the Mickey Thompson Radars and the Keystone Kustom Mags.

I know wheel styles change over time. Has the aftermarket wheel industry changed much over the past twenty five years? If so, how have those changes affected your business?

Things seem to have moved into the ‘60s style recently. That, and the prices of vintage wheels have doubled over the past ten years.

What is your favourite vintage wheel design?

Slotted and five spokes.

What is your favourite current wheel design?

Radir wheels, E-T wheels.

The Gold Diggers

Inside the Wheels Unlimited shop, in the workshop out the back, there sat a couple of interesting pickups that needed a closer look. The green metallic pick up, Gold Digger II is a heavily modified ‘53 Chevy. The custom bodywork, including a mean chop, skirted rear wheel openings, frenched head lamps, integrated front bumper and hand made front grill, is all the handy work of Gene Winfield. The spring green fine flake was also sprayed by Gene. After further conversation, it turns out that the brothers are pretty good mates with Gene. Gene is Kyohei’s hero and mentor. Kyohei confirms this by proudly showing off his tattoo of the famous Gene Winfield Customs logo on his forearm. The all-white tuck and roll interior screams in contrast to the green exterior. That combination really gives the truck a nostalgic showcar look. I was still checking out the inside of the ’53 cabin when I heard the ’50 start up. With a deep rumble, Kyohei proceeded to move Gold Digger l out into the side street as Luke’s Nikon kept clicking away.

Though Gold Digger I was a mild custom compared to GDII, the white and metallic gold paint combination had a similar nostalgic look. As the ‘50 came to a stop in the street, the hissing of air overtook the sound of the motor as the truck lowered to the pavement. While standing in the side street with the pickup and enjoying another frozen paddle pop, the conversation moved from the Gold Diggers to other cars owned by the Sakuragi brothers. We decided it was time to take a short drive and check out some more of their inventory.

We drove to a quiet residential area with traditional Asian-looking houses, Japanese gardens, and plenty of mature Bonsai trees. Located in their father’s nondescript two-car garage were two custom Mercurys. Both Mercs, a ’53 and ’40, were also modified and painted by Gene Winfield.

Known as ‘Gone Bananas’, the ’53 was unchopped with a light yellow body, gold strakes on the front and rear fenders and a candy gold roof. Except for the body side moulding, all of the chrome trim including badging and handles were shaved. The front horizontal grill was hand made. It was lowered to the pavement thanks to the front and rear hydraulic suspension.  

The ’40, called ‘Merced Woman’ is a Tudor Sedan with a chopped white carson top and burnt orange candy paint. All of the factory chrome trim including handles were removed and chrome spot lights were added to the A pillars. The contrast of both cars sitting amongst a very traditional Japanese and zen-like backdrop could not have been more extreme. While both cars were in the street, Yoshi and Kyohei’s father slowly ventures out of the house to walk his dog. I asked Yoshi-san if his dad liked his cars?  “No, my father has no interest in cars, he is more traditional Japanese style.” 

The visit to Wheels Unlimited was way more than we bargained for. The Sakuragi brothers were such welcoming and enthusiastic hosts. We covered the shop and four of their impressive custom cars and trucks in the time we would normally spend on one photoshoot. All that and, according to Yoshi, we still hadn’t seen everything. There was one more custom lurking in his garage. We were curious...

This article first appeared in Fuel Magazine issue 18.

Follow Wheels Unlimited: @kustomwheel.

Craig MetrosJapan, Custom